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The politics and purpose of giving

by steve churmPublished: October 01, 2011

Max Gardner, Orange County United Way
As the economy waffles and government grants shrink, Orange County nonprofits come to terms with the new paradigm of smaller budgets, frayed staffs and mounting questions from donors. Meanwhile, the need for food, shelter and medical care only escalates. Is there hope?

On a hot August afternoon, a few blocks from the county civic center, Max Gardner is flashing his trademark smile as he plays with a group of toddlers and their moms. He’s the only male in the Mommy and Me class, and the kids at this Santa Ana-based nonprofit love it. One little girl tries jumping on his back. He laughs. She giggles. None of the 10 moms totally understand that they are sharing the floor at Moms Orange County with one of the most important faces of charity in the region.
Gardner has only been on the job as the permanent president and CEO of Orange County United Way for some 60 days. But watching him on his knees with clients of Moms Orange County, it’s clear he loves the honeymoon. He is a relationship guy. Listen to his colleagues and peers in the nonprofit world, and they agree it is the human factor that is the difference between success and failure in one of the roughest economic cyclones to strike in the last half century.
The near collapse of the financial markets 36 months ago, followed by an anemic recovery, has left the coffers of many nonprofits depleted at a time when the need is reaching record levels. More troubling: Those agencies and nonprofits still open are being asked to do more with less, leaving staffs fatigued, stretched and uncertain about what’s ahead.
“We have all been disappointed with how long and how deep the economic downturn has been,” says a resigned Michael Ruane, executive director of the Children and Families Commission of Orange County. The commission last year granted more than $50 million to 120 different county nonprofits. “Many agencies have exhausted their reserves and their capacities as boards to hang on. It’s going to require much more drastic and creative approaches to 
Margie Wakeham, longtime executive director of Irvine-based Families Forward, where demand at the group’s food pantry has skyrocketed by nearly 500 percent in the past year, was even more blunt: “The need is simply enormous and growing. The demand has pushed our food inventories to the edge.”
Shelley Hoss, president of the Orange County Community Foundation, agrees: “There are no safe harbors for non-
profits. They are being hit from all sides.”
Even more telling is where the need is coming from. Jim Palmer, president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, which has 500 beds in seven facilities, said nothing surprises him anymore. Every business sector has been hit, and the pain is spread across all demographic boundaries and income levels. In his 19 years at the helm of the rescue mission, this is the deepest economic trough he’s experienced, and he witnesses the impact daily in the ever-growing lines for services.

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10 Questions for Max Gardner
President & CEO, United Way Orange County